Restricted Access to Library Materials (1973)


American Library Association


CSEP Library

Date Approved: 

February 2, 1973

Other Versions: 

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Restricted Access to Library Materials

An Interpretation of the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS

Restricting access of certain titles and certain classes of library materials is a practice common to many libraries in the United States. Collections of these materials are referred to by a variety of names such as "closed shelf," "locked case," "adults only," or "restricted shelf" collections.

Three reasons generally advanced to justify restricted access are:

(1) It provides a refuge for materials that belong in the collection but which may be considered "objectionable" by some library patrons;

(2) It provides a means for controlling distribution of materials which allegedly should not be read by those who are not "prepared" for such materials by experience, education, or age;

(3) It provides a means to protect certain materials from theft and mutilation.

Though widely used - and often practical - restricted access to library materials is frequently in opposition to the principles of intellectual freedom. While the limitation differs from direct censorship activities, such as removal of library materials or refusal to purchase certain publications, it nonetheless constitutes censorship, albeit a subtle form. As a form of censorship, restricted access violates the spirit of the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS in the following ways:

(1) It violates that portion of Article II which states that it ... no library materials should be proscribed.. because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval."

The word "proscribed," as used in Article II, means "suppressed." Restricted access achieves de facto suppression of certain materials.

Even when a title is listed in the card catalog with a reference to its restricted shelf status, a barrier is placed between the patron and the publication. Because a majority of materials placed in restricted collections deal with controversial, unusual, or "sensitive" subjects, asking a librarian or circulation clerk for them is an embarrassment for patrons desiring the materials. Because restricted collections are often composed of materials which some library patrons consider "objectionable," the potential user is predisposed to thinking of the materials as "objectionable," and is accordingly inhibited from asking for them. Although the barrier between the materials and the patron is psychological, it is nonetheless a tangible limitation on his access to information.

(2) It violates Article V which states that, "The rights of an individual to the use of a library should not be denied or abridged because of his age.. ."

Limiting access of certain materials to adults only abridges the use of the library for minors. "Use of the library," includes use of, and access to, library materials. Such restrictions are generally instituted under the assumption that certain materials are "harmful" to minors, or in an effort to avoid controversy with parents who might think so.

The librarian who would restrict the availability of materials to minors because of actual or suspected parental objection should bear in mind that he is not in loco parentis in his position as librarian. The American Library Association holds that it is the parent - and only the parent - who may restrict his children - and only his children - in reading matter. The parent who would rather his child did not read certain materials or certain kinds of materials should so advise the child.*

When restricted access is implemented to protect materials from theft or mutilation, the use of the practice may be legitimate. However, segregation of materials to protect them must be administered with extreme attention to the rationale for restricting access. Too often only "controversial" materials are the subject of such segregation, 'Leading to the conclusion that factors other than theft and mutilation were the true considerations. The distinction is extremely difficult to make, both for the librarian and the patron.

Selection policies, carefully developed on the basis of principles of intellectual freedom and the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS, should not be vitiated by administrative practices such as restricted access.

*See also FREE ACCESS TO LIBRARIES FOR MINORS, adopted by the ALA Council, June 30, 1972.

Adopted February 2, 1973 by the ALA Council